In a sleepy all American town where time appears to have stood still since the 1950s, the Mayor's son disappears (in fact, the audience already knows he's been murdered in the first scene of the film). The town's only policeman, John Brady (Michael Murphy) is soon looking into it, but he is preoccupied with his son, Pete (Dan Shor) and his application to the local college. For some reason, Brady is adamant that the boy should not have anything to do with the place. Pete, though, has already become involved with the college's psychology department, run by the mysterious but sexy, Dr. Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis). He and his best friend Oliver (Mark McClure) are being paid to take part in behavioral experiments based on the theories of the deceased Dr. Le Sange (Arthur Dignam) who still lives on through his extensive filmed lectures. Soon, more teenagers' bodies start piling up, and a number of slasher maniacs appear to be terrorising the town! John Brady begins to suspect that something strange is going on up at the college and that it is somehow connected to the murders; his investigation soon forces him to reopen some painful wounds from his own past...
"Strange Behaviour" was the debut project of director Michael Laughlin and his screenwriter partner Bill Condon. Condon's career has since gone from strength to strength. His screenplay for "Chicago" (2002) bagged him an Academy Award; this, after he'd both written and directed the acclaimed "Gods and Monsters" (1998), which also earned him an Oscar for its screenplay. Laughlin's directorial career meanwhile, seemed to hit the doldrums after "Mesmerised" (1986) and the dismal reception of "Town and Country" (2001) — for which Laughlin turned screenwriter — didn't do much to get his career back on track. He now mainly concentrates on producing.
Back in 1981 however, both men were aspiring twentysomethings — and, in the middle of a boom in slasher movies instigated by John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978), they unleashed their own, highly idiosyncratic take on the genre: "Strange Behaviour" (1981). At the time it sank without trace; compared to such fare as "Friday The 13th" (1980), it was just too offbeat. Now, over twenty years later, "Strange Behaviour" is ripe for reappraisal — those aspects that looked like faults at the time now seem like endearing traits which mark it out from the pack of long forgotten drive-in b-movies that it seemingly couldn't compete with at the time.
Ever since Michael Myers made the sleepy town of Haddonfield his hunting ground in John Carpenter's "Halloween", small town life has been one of the main settings for the American horror movie. These places create a sense of timeless innocence and tranquility which make them perfect contrasting backdrops for the forces of evil! David Lynch expanded the theme by giving his fictional town of Lumberton in "Blue Velvet" (1986) a sheen of fifties gloss (even though the film was set in the present day) to further give the sense of a place untouched by the confusions and contradictions of the modern world. But the sugar-coated images of this fifties, small town ideal have always been tempered by the fact that these were the conditions and the period that first brought us face to face with the serial killer — in the form of Ed Gein. Lynch's world reminded us of the corrupted underbelly of small town life, while the contemporary fascination with serial killers has its roots in the horror genre, which first picked up on the notion that evil can lurk in the most commonplace, everyday settings such as these unassuming small towns.
"Strange Behaviour" continues this tradition of small towns besieged by a malevolent threat, and even anticipates the opening scene-setting montage in "Blue Velvet", when we see images of the peaceful town — in this case, over one of Tangerine Dream's more pastoral compositions. Laughlin and Condon appear to be delivering a standard slasher movie at this point. Although filmed in Auckland, New Zealand for budgetary reasons, the American small town feel is very believable, with Laughlin often filming scenes in unusually long, sometimes static master-shots, with very few cutaways or close-ups; Auckland's peaceable landscapes help convey the sense that this is a rather idyllic, but dull little town, where very little ever happens. When the killings start to occur however, the director deliverers some extremely effective stalk & slash scenes that are up there with the best the genre has to offer. Some sequences are incredibly suspenseful, and not easily forgotten once seen. One, where a housekeeper makes a disturbing discovery in the bathroom and is then stalked through the house by the killer, is a standout moment; as is a scene where a couple of young lovers are stalked by a killer who wears a mask of Tor Johnson! It's well handled sequences such as these that certainly recall the style of classic slasher movies such as Halloween.
But, perhaps one of the reasons "Strange Behaviour" received a somewhat muted reception from audiences at the time of its initial release, despite these traditional trappings (although, by all accounts it was quite well received critically), is the curious way it mutates from an effective slasher into a semi-humorous homage to old-style "mad scientist" movies of the fifties and early sixties. Condon even threw a musical number into the script, in which a bunch of teens at a fancy dress party suddenly break into a stagy dance number — a catchy little ditty called "lightning strikes" — performed to camera as though the film had suddenly turned into a rock musical! Obviously Condon's love of the musical genre was already well developed, even at this point!
It's the quirky elements such as this that might befuddle some audiences. There are lots of perversely humorous little scenes throughout — like one where a chicken is controlled in a behavioral demonstration by way of a tiny, electrode-studded, helmet strapped to its head! — that reveal a mischievous sense of irony is also at work behind the scenes. The mad scientist plot-line which suddenly becomes the focus of the movie, feels like a parody for sure, but also reminds one of the knowing style of Condon's hero, James Whale. Director, Laughlin doesn't let up on the intensity though, despite this "turn": we get several horrific sequences during this latter half of the film, which now concentrates on disturbing scientific experiments. A scene involving a hypodermic injection to the eye while an unwilling patient is strapped down is particularly unsettling; and another, where a character is compelled to slash his own wrists, is so explicit that it has raised the ire of the BBFC even in 2004!
Screen Entertainment/Hard Gore have delivered yet another little-known gem to the UK DVD market. The transfer used here appears to be from the same restored print made for last year's US release. There are a few missing frames and minor print damage throughout, but this is generally a very fine looking transfer of a twenty-four year old, little known, low budget movie. The audio is a clear and crisp Dolby 2.0 mono which does the job adequately. When it comes to extras, it's a disappointment to find that the commentary track from the US release (featuring writer, Bill Condon and stars, Dan Shor and Dey Young) hasn't made it across the pond, but there is some consolation to find an extensive (and exclusive) text interview with Condon has been included on the disc instead along with a theatrical trailer.
As mentioned earlier, the BBFC have made some cuts to this release which total 41 seconds in all. These apply to a scene where a character slashes their wrists in quite graphic detail. Apparently, the level of detail depicted in this method of suicide is what caused them concern, since, presumably, it might provide too much information for any viewer who may want to do away with themselves in the future! The scene still makes sense though; close-ups of the act have been removed, and it looks as though some of the medium shots may have been altered to tone down the amount of blood visible. All this is regrettable, and seems like a bit of an overreaction by the BBFC to me, who appear to be going through another draconian phase at the moment. Luckily, the cuts don't really affect the impact of the film and aren't noticeable unless you are already aware of the scene in question.
With the benefit of hindsight, "Strange Behaviour" now feels refreshingly original even if the script does contain the occasional lapse in logic. There are enough skilfully handled horror set-pieces to satisfy the purists while the film's warped sense of humour never gets completely out of line. There are some well judged performances from the likes of Michael Murphy (a veteran of the movies of Robert Altman and Woody Allen), Dan Shor and Arthur Dignam, while a very special mention has to go to the divine Fiona Lewis, who could run experiments on me anytime she likes! Well, ok ... maybe not the one with the hypodermic needle to the eye!